So, I thought I might stop with my review of Grace Lin’s The Year of the Dog but here, I’m back again after reading the next novel in her Pacy series, The Year of the Rat. I just couldn’t help myself.
In keeping with the last book and with the title, we begin on the Lunar New Year’s Eve before the Year of the Rat. This year is a lucky one and Pacy writes a list of wishes to be fulfilled in the year.
Since a year before, Pacy has discovered her talent for writing and illustrating and at the ripe old age of 9, she already knows that is what she wants to do with her life, she thinks. But at her cousin’s first birthday and the family plays a game where the birthday boy picks his career from items on a tray, Pacy learns her elders’ fear of a career in art, calling it a “cold door.” Impressionable Pacy is troubled by this.
Add to that her best friend Melody is moving across the country and the Chinese family that moves into Melody’s house has a son Pacy’s age she cannot possibly be friends with. He’s so strange and Pacy resents her classmates linking them together because they “match” best. She is back to hanging out with her best friends from before Melody’s arrival and she senses something is different. They don’t seem to get her and talk about silly topics and there is a vein of ignorant racism. I learned from the Grammar Girl podcast “The Rules of Story” that everything that could go wrong has to in order for the protagonist to rise above and for it to be satisfying when she does.
The Year of the Rat is a thicker volume than the preceding novel and the next volume is even thicker, a real book! We saw this with the Harry Potter series which also got darker as they grew up and Pacy was more serious and life’s harsh realities start to break into her world.
During the year, Pacy attends her cousin’s wedding which is opportunity for Lin to share the special customs of a Chinese wedding from the innocent, non-judging view of a child. Even I learned something new like how the mandatory chicken and lobster courses of wedding banquets represent the phoenix and dragon, respectively, which represent the female and male, respectively. I also learned about the custom of having children jump on the marital bed to give the couple good luck having kids. And there are so many Lunar New Year customs that I learned some more even at their second celebration in as many books, like throwing away chipped chopsticks (because it means something is eating away at your fortune), why we have the zodiac animals in the order they are and the interaction between the snake (NPY’s sign) and the horse (my sign), why we wear new clothes and the myth of the Nian monster.
As a side note, I felt like it was a really honest tidbit by Lin in having Pacy and Melody read the Cheerleaders series of novels because there is a Chinese character. I certainly understand, looking for insight in Claudia’s character from The Babysitter’s Club although I did not like the series, and favouring Sweet Valley High #50 because it introduced Jade Wu however stereotypical the character and story were. It was a post-modern jab at having token Asian characters mentioned in an unique series where the protagonist is Chinese.
The reason why I just had to blog about this volume as well was my excitement to find inspiration from a children’s book! And, as a result, while I felt like I “had” to read the second volume, I really want to read the third one. That is, the turning point occurs when Pacy’s father tells her a fable with two philosophers talking about knowing the feelings of fish in a pond with the lesson imparted as “only you really know yourself and only you can really make your decisions.” It pushes Pacy to stop feeling sorry for herself for having bad luck all year, to be the self-reliant Tiger she is. I was cheering!
Lin wrote a lovely Author’s Note explaining how real-life Melody moved away, too, which is why she wrote that into the Pacy story but they stayed in touch and real-life Melody became Grace’s editor. This second novel did not have the hilarious illustrations of the first novel but I still collected her food imagery like pearls (“dandelion-yellow stained chicken”, “the ground was no longer a mix of seaweed-colored grass and mud that felt like wet tea leaves at the bottom of a cup”, “it [a dress] was bright green, the color of steamed broccoli”, “they smiled at each other like they had just eaten a warm egg custard on a cold day”, “the moon filled the sky like a mango-colored pearl”, and “a streak of light was spreading across the grim sky, like milk just poured into tea”).
And here’s one for the grown-ups: Pacy’s mother laughs when the children did not enjoy the soup, “You can only appreciate bittermelon soup when you are old and have tasted the bitterness of life.” Indeed.